The Flames

                      

The Flames

Dec. 24, 1965                       Redhill Correctional Facility          Redhill, Ohio

John sat on the low bench and watched the clock. It was Christmas Eve and the recreation room filled with men watching the small black and white TV, and drinking the last of the fruit punch brought by the Methodist Church.  He had seen Nora and the baby two days before.  Nora looked tired.  They were making her work doubles she said; there were too many people out for the holidays.  He shared the homemade fudge she brought, with Ray and Lonnie, and Lonnie passed around the cornbread his wife Cinda made.  Cinda was a damn good cook. It was almost eight and he’d have to go back soon . . . What was he afraid of?  Baker was half his size and Ray said, anyhow, he’d make sure to make a lot of racket, if the old man tried anything. “I’ll keep an eye on ‘im, don’t you worry about it.”

Before they brought the old guy in, Ray showed him the peephole. A crack in the crumbling wall between the cells,the wall divided what was once a single cell, into two cramped ones.  John had laughed, but when Baker arrived, John understood just how bad it was. The old man’s strangeness, his eyes—he’d hardly slept in almost ten days.

The Little Drummer Boy Christmas Special was almost over now.  He never thought much of the holidays.  Too many sad memories . . . the Christmases after his dad left. He was less than ten sitting alone in the apartment . . . worrying about his mother, hoping she’d be back soon, knowing it could be days.  John finished his cigarette as the guard called an end to the evening.  As John passed by, Ray sat in his cell shuffling a deck of cards. Ray glanced up and smiled, giving John the thumbs up.  Lonnie, whose cell was one down from Ray’s, stretched out on his bunk.  Lonnie seemed unaffected by Baker’s proximity, an exception to the rest of the cellblock.  They were all jittery, including the guards.

“Merry Christmas, Arnold.  Be good now.” Lonnie called to John.

“Merry Christmas, old man.” John answered as the lights on the block dimmed. Lonnie had turned forty two days before.

“Merry Christmas, Arnold,” said the guard as he unlocked the door to John’s cell.

“Yeah—Merry Christmas,” John responded, both of them looking away as John entered the darkened cell.  Inside, there were whispers.  The guard turned the lock and walked quickly down the catwalk to the winding stairs.

Baker was kneeling on the floor of the cell.  Though it was dark, John could see he was naked.  Hoping to reach his bunk without drawing the old man’s attention, John slowly moved sideways, carefully groping for the edge. The skeletal form rocked back and forth. Baker was saying something—praying?

CLACK—CLACK . . . clackclackclack—a sound burst from nowhere causing the thick window glass to shatter.  John grabbed his ears, barely managing to avoid being cut. As they came through the open window, snowflakes speckled the cell wall. Men called out, “Whatthefuck/It’s Christmas Eve for crissake/shut the hell up . . . ” John shivered as the old man continued to rock.  A foul odor, pungent and sweet with soft oozing rot rolled through the cellblock.  John heard Lonnie call out, “The sewer, something musta busted.”

Dozens of  candle-like flames appeared, seeming to float in the air.  Unnerved by the disembodied flames, John panicked when he looked down and saw Baker was kneeling in the center of a star, crudely drawn inside a circle—its edges smeared on the tiny patch of cement.

Was that blood? The old man’s? Where was he cut?  One urgent thought took over; he must get away.  As he began to yell for the guards, he saw  piles of cigarette butts and empty packs—Lucky Strikes. They were his, but why?  His alarm suddenly mushrooming into terror, he started yelling louder, screaming, as the old man kept rocking, chanting the words faster, until—OH MY GODFire erupted and John started to burn.

The shrieks of the dying man and the fire that consumed him started a confusion of screams and yells, a jumble of noise as the prisoners began to panic, pounding the bars with whatever they could grab, clamoring for the guards to do something; get them out, away from the fast moving fire.  In the next cell, Ray shook the bars, yelling as loud as he could, knowing that it was already too late.  The fire was everywhere now and men were shrieking open the goddamn cell! Someone must’ve had heard, because there was a sudden jerk, and Ray’s cell door slid a few inches. He struggled to squeeze through.

Minutes earlier, Ray had crouched low, his eye angled against the tiny opening in the crumbling wall, so that he could keep an eye out in case Baker was up to something.  He had a bad feeling all day—worse than usual.  He shook as he tried to fit through the small opening to the catwalk, screaming along with the rest of them for help—help for himself—John was already dead, he’d seen him die, and he’d seen what had happened to Baker.  The smell of burning flesh and Baker changing . . . the flesh stretching, his body growing, his face . . . oh God no one will believe him!  As the guards ran to the burning man, the skin melted and hair gone, body charred and twisted, “John” had yelled, “Baker! The crazy fuck set himself on fire!”  Forgotten, as the guards fought the flames, “John” buttoned his shirt, zipped his trousers and walked along the row of cell doors, his hands running along the bars—and what? Ray still couldn’t get a handle on it—flames dropped from John’s fingers. Ray trembled as “John” passed his cell, smiling, running his fingers along the bars and the flames . . . Focus, he thought, just get out!  No one will believe you. Every one here will be dead.  Get away! The flames and smoke were reaching up from the lower tier when—with one final tug—Ray squeezed through.

Starting to run, he saw that Lonnie was trying to squeeze through an even smaller opening—the only other cell door that had opened at all as fire and black smoke swirled up from the ground level.  Ray gestured to Lonnie—he would try to get to the lever, the one on the ground level that opened the cells.  “Hurry” Lonnie’s voice barely audible above the choking voices of the others as they were pleading, trying to bargain, splashing their toilet water—futilely trying to douse the flames, to stay alive just a little longer.  As Ray went down the metal stairs, he heard Lonnie yell “Cindaaaa!  Tell her . . . love . . . ” Then, Lonnie was screaming.

Ray crept along the ground floor and saw that the flames shooting up through the roof, melting glass and metal beams were beginning to loosen and would soon collapse.  The smoke was thick, blinding him.  Crouching down, feeling his way, he tried to see if there were any guards when he saw John (Baker?) standing in an open door. Not knowing where to flee, Ray rose to his feet.  With a sigh and a smile, John extended his arm and pointed at Ray. A flame shot from his finger striking Ray’s chest. As Ray began to scream, frantically swatting the flames, John laughed and disappeared through the open door.

Still batting at the fire, Ray followed him through the open door. As it welled up and began to burn his face and hair, Ray reached the outside, throwing himself on to the snow-covered ground.  Shivering with the cold and dazed, he listened to the screams of prisoners trapped within, and the shouts of the guards trying frantically to fight the blaze. There was the wail of sirens and the fire trucks began to arrive.  In shock, and in terrible pain, Ray raised himself up and saw what looked like John Arnold pick up a hose and begin to fight the fire.  Ray fainted.

 

 

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